Hyecho and His Travelogue

 

Hyecho (704-787) was a scholar who trekked the longest ever way in the early 8th century. A professional student of Buddhism, he was eager to visit India, the birthplace of Buddhism. He crossed the sea and travelled a number of Southeast Asian countries and Sri Lanka before he arrived in India.

What he saw first on landing was dozens of people clothed in grass leaves running in haste to catch rhinoceros, a tropical animal, in the woods in a nearly fallen walled area. Months later he, after a strenuous plodding in the sultry weather, got to the temple he had longed to visit.

Excited to accomplish his old desire he wrote a poem at the entrance to the temple, which said that he was satisfied to fulfil his wish and that he could see the temple with his own eye that day.

Paying homage, he went round the place where Sakyamuni was said to have guided the world to Buddhism before dying there, and the one where Sakyamuni had cultivated his moral sense to become Buddha. Now he felt satisfied telling himself that he could style himself as Buddhist since he had personally seen the place.

The next leg of his journey was a walled city where the monarch of the central Indian kingdom lived. After sightseeing around the place he returned to his lodging and wrote down what he had seen all night. Part of it reads: "Many are poor and few are rich in this land. Seldom could I see people—whether they are the king or commoners—using hawks or dogs for hunting. There are a lot of thieves along the road, and they take things and don't kill people. The people here eat cake made of rice powder and oil made from milk. They have no soy sauce but salt. All that they use for cooking is earthenware. They pay only five sacks of cereals they grow in their field for the sake of the king. The king looks after official affairs, when he sits out to hear of them and gives decisions without showing any sign of anger."

Later Hyecho toured the five Indian kingdoms (north, south, east, west and central ones) and some neighbouring countries, visited Persia (Iran) and east Roman Empire before setting out on the return home journey. In November 727 he arrived in Changan (Xian at present), capital city of Tang China, but he failed to return home and breathed his last there. There he wrote a travelogue titled Record of Travel to India which was a general compilation of the notes he had made about what he had seen and heard and experienced plodding a long distance of 40 000 km for ten years.

For ages Hyecho’s writing remained in oblivion, though, until a Tang Chinese made a simplified book about three of Hyecho’s travelogue books. The simplified edition was discovered by a Frenchman in 1910 in a cave at Qianfoudong, Mingshashan, Dunhuang County, Gansu Province, Qing China.

The finding was published for its first edition in China as soon as it was discovered. It was also issued in Japan in 1911. At the time of discovery some of the first, middle and last parts of the original were found missing or damaged, so only some of the second and third volumes are now available. The book gives records of meticulous observations of nearly all matters of human life, including each country's socio-political systems, physiographical conditions, economic situations and cultural activities, morality and customs, religious and superstitious beliefs. Details are given about the governmental organisations, cities, names and geographical environment of all the countries he travelled, natural resources and special products, modes of production and everyday life of the local people.

There are some incorrect descriptions Hyecho made from the religious view, but his travelogue serves as valuable material for studies of India and other Asian countries in the 8th century.

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